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The meaning and origin of the expression: I'm stumped

I'm stumped

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Stumped'?

Stumped: Stuck - unable to proceed, often regarding being confounded by some intellectual puzzle.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Stumped'?

Some authorities have supposed that this derives from the development of the road system in the USA. When these highways were being built the stumps of sawn down trees could be no more than 15 inches tall. This was fine for the high axle wagons until rain softened the soil, at which time wagons would sink into the mud and were 'stumped'. This is a good story, albeit one that doesn't come packaged with any real evidence. Others have suggested that it might be from cricket, in which a batsman is out if the wicket-keeper removes the stumps with the ball when the batsman is out of his ground. This explanation is also lacking supporting evidence and in any case doesn't really match the meaning of the expression.

It is more likely that the term derives from ploughs sticking when they hit tree-stumps. The USA origin is certainly correct though. All of the early citations of the phrase originate from there; for example, Seba Smith's Letters of Major Jack Downing, 1833:

"My Good Old Friend, - I'm stumped. I jest got a letter from the Gineral."

The term is pre-dated by the term 'stumper', which was US slang for a difficult poser. This was cited in an 1807 edition of the New York magazine Salmagundi:

"They happened to run their heads full butt against a new reading. Now this was a stumper."

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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